Guest Interview: Uma Krishnaswami & Vaunda Micheaux Nelson Reflect on Writing’s Journey

By Uma Krishnaswami

I have been a fan of Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s work for decades now. We’ve been together in a writing group since 1997. I can’t imagine letting a manuscript go to my agent without having this amazing writer and friend cast her eyes on it first. I feel so fortunate that she is in my writing circle—my life circle. So I thought I’d ask Vaunda a few questions that we don’t have time for in the group, questions I’ve wanted to ask her before but never quite got to.

Here’s our conversation.

Looking back to your early books like Possibles (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995) and the Mayfield books (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), what do you think sparked the urge to write those and what currently stirs you to write today?

People have always said, “Write about what you know.”  In many ways, I was doing that back then, but I was also writing about what I wanted to know, what I wanted to figure out. The Mayfield books fictionalized something of my growing-up years—friendship and sandlot baseball, scary old Hairy and fights on the playground. It was fun to relive those times.

Many of Meg Turner’s experiences and feelings were mine, but Meg is better than I was. She does things I couldn’t at the time. Things I wished I’d done. So that was one motivation—forgiving myself…finding closure.

That’s one of the wonderful things about writing fiction. You can create the world as you would like it to be.

In the Mayfield books I was dealing with questions that lingered about those experiences. What my parents taught me—their advice to get along with people even though some of them won’t treat you right, was something I wanted to explore. I also wanted to examine how individuals who have been subjected to racism can avoid becoming hateful themselves. They can, I believe.

Possibles was a book I needed to write. That journey was my way of dealing with the loss of my father to cancer. My main character, Sheppy, is me, but she isn’t. I started writing it in first person, but quickly shifted to third, realizing that Sheppy had to be someone else in order for me to reach the objectivity I needed to help her through her grief and, in turn, help myself through mine.

On some level, writing has always been a selfish pursuit for me. I write for readers, but I write for myself first. I don’t always write about what I already know.

It’s wonderful to hear that from you. Encourages me to look beyond my own limits. 

My curiosity about historical people and events leads me to look outward, which is a good thing.

My first real experience with this was Almost to Freedom, illustrated by Colin Bootman (Carolrhoda Books, 2003). I knew a bit about the underground railroad, but not enough for my own satisfaction and not enough to confidently write a book. What really drew me in was the notion of the dolls and their role in the lives of enslaved children. This stirred memories of my own childhood world of dolls—something I did know.

Discovering people like Bass Reeves and George Fletcher made me want to know more, but even they uncovered personal connections for me, connections that hooked me like a helpless fish. So what I know and what I want to know always seem to drive me.

Do you think you write differently now from the way you did back then? We can call this process, for lack of a better word, but I guess I’m asking, has your writing practice changed over the years and if so how? Are there things about it that have stayed the same?

Certainly, technology has changed my process. Pre-computers, pencil and paper were my tools for early drafts, which I then typed. Edits were written by hand and each change meant retyping, sometimes that page, sometimes the entire manuscript.

In today’s world, this may sound like a waste of time, but the process wasn’t a bad thing. Retyping enabled me to see words and phrases (ones I hadn’t marked in my pencil edits) that I could make stronger. Revisions ultimately felt cleaner then. Now that I write everything on my computer, I admit that I don’t examine every word every time I revise. I have, but rarely, retyped a story to recreate that cleaner editing experience. I always read and re-read my work aloud, which may come close to accomplishing the same thing.

Overall, I don’t think my process has changed much, but the fact that I recently retired from my day job has reduced my need to multi-task (which I dislike immensely). I no longer need to “steal” time to write—a true luxury.

Hurray for time to dwell in storyland! Speaking of which, you were awarded the Talking Leaves Oracle Award from the National Storytelling Network in 2019—and of course, you were a librarian for many years, engaging with young people through storytelling and performance as well as around books. Where did your inner storyteller come from and what’s her role in your writing?

As I’ve said many times in the past, my parents played a huge role in creating my inner storyteller. When I think of them I remember words from Gillian Strickland’s poem “The Reading Mother”—“Richer than I you can never be—I had a Mother who read to me.” And a father who loved and wrote his own poetry. They made me love stories and the words and minds that make them.

My inner storyteller’s role in my writing is to help me remember that the telling is what gives a story staying power. Certainly content and substance are important to me. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t put so much energy into research. But my inner storyteller is the one who sits on my shoulder and says, “Make it beautiful.” I try to listen.

Betsy Bird said your picture book, Don’t Call Me Grandma, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Carolrhoda Books, 2016), tackles what she called the “almost nonexistent subcategory of grouchy great-grandparents.” That really made me smile because I had a grandma like great-grandmother Nell, and it’s true, you pretty much invented that subcategory!

In fact, it strikes me that you’ve made a career of filling gaps in the children’s lit bookshelf long before most people detect those gaps exist. I’m thinking of Ready! Set? Raymond, illustrated by Derek Anderson (Random House, 2002) in the category of early readers with racially specific characters who are just being kids. Will you talk about both those books and any others in terms of what gave them staying power for you?  

I’m glad my work has filled some gaps, but that’s not my main motivation for the stories I choose to tell. Yes, seeing a gap does add motivation for me. When I found out about Bass Reeves I thought, “Why don’t I know this amazing man, and why doesn’t everybody?” But seeing a gap isn’t enough. I need to feel quite a bit of passion for my story in order to tell it well. Also, because the process of creating a book can be long and challenging, I have to care enough to give myself over completely to a project.

I was thrilled when I read Betsy’s wonderful review of Don’t Call Me Grandma. I was so pleased she got it. A thousand thanks to Betsy for her commitment and many contributions to our children’s literature world. Uma, I hope you are right about this book having staying power but, sadly, Don’t Call Me Grandma hasn’t gained much traction. I hope it continues to find new audiences.

Sometimes it’s an endurance test, isn’t it? I for one am keeping my eyes crossed for Great Grandmother Nell.

Great Grandmother Nell was based on my paternal grandmother so, once again, I was writing about something I knew. Wondering how many other kids had a similar person in their lives made me want to explore the less-then-warm-and-fuzzy grandmother and acknowledge she exists and is potentially loveable. An absence of hugs doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of love.

Ready? Set. Raymond! contains elements of myself and my oldest brother Eddie. It was fun to get to know Raymond and to build his world. I am so proud of this book, partly for the reason you suggested—it’s just about kids being kids. I love history and will continue to develop projects that spotlight events and individuals deserving of recognition. We need to keep honoring past contributors by telling their stories.

But I also love books that present the kinds of universal experiences that allow all children to see themselves. Raymond is a kid who does things fast. He runs races, makes fast friends, appreciates a new pair of sneakers and, by the way, he just happens to be Black. The fact that this title has been in print for nearly 20 years speaks volumes. Derek Anderson’s marvelous illustrations are at least half the reason for its success. I’m grateful for him. Raymond has a special place in my heart, and I’ve been revisiting his world and working on more stories about my sweet little boy.

I remember a conversation I had with you when I was in the last stages of work on Threads of Peace: How Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Changed the World (Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2021) and suddenly feeling that I lacked the ability to round it all out in the final chapter. And you said something to the effect that the book lays out its own messages, and I needed to trust the work I’d done already.

It struck me then that you have this wonderful ability to cut through the noise and find the core of a story. I also know this is so much harder to do with your own work, so I want to ask—can you think of times you’ve been afflicted by writerly self-doubt and how did you get beyond it?

Every time I write a book, at some point in the journey, I am, as you put it, “afflicted by writerly self-doubt.” I am right now struggling with theme and voice as I do final work on my newest/current nonfiction picture book project. I need to find a way to, again as you put it, “cut through the noise and find the core of the story.” You are right—it’s much harder to do this with my own work. I guess I need to take some of my own advice and trust the work I’ve already done…pay attention to the messages that have already been laid out. All I can do is have faith and push on.

What writers feel as if they’re inviting you to read more of their work? What writers (or books) seem to invite you to write?

There are so very, very many and more to come, I’m sure.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960) is a book I return to. It both humbles and inspires me. Then there’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig (Windmill Books, 1969), The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Knopf, 1985), The Borning Room by Paul Fleischman (HarperCollins, 1991), Carver, A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson (Wordsong, 2001), The Meadow by James Galvin (Holt McDougal, 1993), Montana 1948 by Larry Watson (Milkweed, 2007), The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, 2015), The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum, 2010), Judy Scuppernong by Brenda Seabrooke (Dutton, 1990), Talkin’ About Bessie by Nikki Grimes and illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Orchard Books, 2002), What Hearts by Bruce Brooks (HarperCollins, 1999), If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson (Penguin, 2010), Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt (Clarion, 2004), Incident at Hawks Hill by Allan Eckert (Little, Brown, 1971), Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song by Ashley Bryan, The Winter Room by Gary Paulsen (Scholastic, 1989), Here in Harlem by Walter Dean Myers (Holiday House, 2004),  A Pack of Lies by Geraldine McCaughrean (Oxford University Press, 2002), Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie (Penguin, 1991),  The Medusa and the Snail by Lewis Thomas (Viking, 1974). Whew! I could go on and on.

But I’d like to take this opportunity to focus on Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book: A Novel (Penguin, 2008). The fact that it is a book about a book intrigued me from the start.

When I opened it, what did I find? One of my favorite things in a book—a map!  A book about a book with a map! I was hooked. I love a thing with history. My husband bought one of my wedding rings from the second-hand case at a jewelry store. I like to imagine who might have worn it and what her life was like. If she was happy, I am carrying on the tradition. If she was unhappy, I’m glad to have given the ring a second chance. Like Hannah Heath in People of the Book, I don’t know the ring’s story, but I love wondering.

What speaks most to me in Brooks’ remarkable work is this activity of looking deeply into the history of a thing…its journey. Hannah is passionate about conserving the physical copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a priceless Hebrew manuscript from the 15th century. But she is also intensely curious about the stories behind an insect’s wing, missing silver clasps, wine stains, a salt crystal, and a white hair. She finds a few answers and makes some guesses. But, like me with my wedding ring, she may have to settle [for the joy that comes] with imagining. Her knowledge will always be limited. We readers, on the other hand, are lucky. Brooks gives us a look into the lives of the people who touched and were touched by the book. She gives us the gift of knowing.

As I pursue my own work, my inner storyteller sits on my shoulder and says, “Dig deep.” I try to listen.

The gift of knowing. Thank you, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, for both friendship and inspiration.

Cynsational Notes

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s love of history and family is reflected in many of her award-winning books. She received the 2010 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal (Carolrhoda Books, 2009). No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux Harlem Bookseller (Carolrhoda, 2018), won the 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and a 2013 Coretta Scott King Author Honor. The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (Carolrhoda, 2016) won a 2016 Jane Addams Children’s Book Honor and a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations. Her latest book, Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion won a 2020 Spur Award from Western Writers of America and a 2020 Will Rogers Medallion Award.

Uma Krishnaswami was born in India and now lives in British Columbia, Canada. Threads of Peace: How Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Changed the World, was published by Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Atheneum. Uma teaches in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.